During her much-anticipated testimony in Parktown, Johannesburg, Mahlangu shifted the blame about who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of more than 100 psychiatric patients, who were moved to a number of inadequate and some unlicensed facilities.
“I don’t think anybody planned that people were going to die or be killed,” she said.
She added that it would be misleading the nation to say that she had terminated the contract with Life Esidimeni and put the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project into action.
Mahlangu avoided placing the blame at anyone’s door, opting to deflect it by saying that if she had to blame anyone, she would blame the whole unit.
“The decision to terminate was not an individual decision,” she said, adding that the department’s officials acted as a collective.
The marathon project involved moving psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni to various ill-equipped NGOs across the province, after the health department terminated its contract with the facility.
This resulted in the death of more than 140 patients due to dehydration and malnutrition, among other reasons listed by Health Ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba.
This was Mahlangu’s first day on the stand. She began her testimony by reading a statement that she had prepared, in which she said she hoped her testimony would help families find closure and explore consequences, where necessary.
Security was increased at the venue, as protesters stood at the gates with various placards, occasionally breaking out in songs, which called for answers and accountability.
Mahlangu called the loss of life of vulnerable members of society “the most painful incident in the history of the South African health system”.
She added that the healthcare system was supposed to prolong human life.
“The death is painful and regrettable and I want to express my sincere condolences following the termination, including the removal of mental health patients from Life Esidimeni healthcare facilities,” she said.
Mahlangu apologised more than once, to the annoyance of family members who rejected her apologies and became rowdy each time, prompting retired judge and arbitration chair Justice Dikgang Moseneke to call them to order.
Mahlangu told the panel that the de-institutionalisation of mental healthcare patients had been a cost-cutting move, as the department’s budget was stretched.
She said that de-institutionalisation was aimed at integrating patients into communities because, “for too long, mental health users have been treated as social outcasts”.
Mahlangu also said that the contract between the department and Life Esidimeni did not comply with the department’s current tender processes and legal prescripts, as it dated back to 1970, and was not transparent, equitable or fair.
“Our primary role as the health department was to ensure that we deliver service to all the people of Gauteng. Clearly, this did not go according to plan and it is indeed very unfortunate that the implementation of the project ended up with a loss of life of vulnerable members of society,” she said.
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The former MEC said that the move could have been handled better, and in a manner that promoted human dignity, and the right to life.
“One life lost is too many, and those lives we cannot bring them together, but for what it’s worth, I sincerely apologise to the family members,” she said.
She also testified that Gauteng Premier David Makhura had been aware of the plan to terminate the contract, as it had been discussed before at council budget meetings.
In her statement, Mahlangu insisted that she had not “run away” from appearing before the arbitration hearings.
“I’ve never had any intention of running, it’s never been in my nature to do so,” she said.
Also read: ‘We didn’t plan for anyone to lose their lives’, says Manamela
Mahlangu became MEC in 2004, having worked in various departments, such as health, infrastructure and economic development.
She told the panel that she had been an MEC for just over 12 years before she resigned on the eve of the release of Malegapuru’s report on 1 February last year. In his report, Malegapuru described Mahlangu as having lost credibility, and that her actions and those of two senior officials had been “chaotic, hurried, in a rush, and a total shambles”.
The hearings continue.